Tsunami-hit Asian countries limping back to normal

Associated Press

Banda Aceh, January 23:

Corpses no longer litter Banda Aceh’s streets. Tourists are trickling back to Thailand’s beach resorts. Sri Lanka has barred any rebuilding along its ravaged coastline.

One month after an earthquake-driven juggernaut of water crushed cities in a wide arc of the Indian Ocean, killing over 227,000 people, most of the funerals are over and a patchy recovery is taking shape.

But the troubles remain overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of survivors crowd into squalid refugee camps, too traumatised to return to their farms and fishing boats. Local governments are dysfunctional.

Pre-disaster divisions, separatist insurgencies and fears of terror attacks have threatened the aid effort, even as the US military, the spearhead of the relief operation, talks of winding down its efforts.

“We’ve heard about reconstruction and rehabilitation. But we don’t know when. We don’t know where,” said Iskandar, a 35-year-old government statistician in Banda Aceh. “There are still bodies buried in the rubble and it’s so dirty.”

Foreign governments and international agencies have been praised for pledging $4 billion in aid while the United Nations and World Bank have started drawing long-term development plans. But these countries are grappling with an array of problems.

In Thailand, forensic experts are slowly identifying the dead. In India’s Tamil Nadu state, authorities are struggling over whether to classify the missing as dead, since many victims were buried without being identified.

In Sri Lanka, the tsunami recovery effort has become part of the ongoing political crisis. Norwegian peacemakers have travelled there to settle disputes between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels over allegations that authorities have restricted or blocked aid to areas under rebel control.

Indonesia has sought to keep a firm grip on Aceh province. It ordered aid workers pouring into the region to declare their movements - or risk being expelled. Activists fear that corrupt bureaucrats will siphon off assistance. Many in Indonesia worry the aid will run out before the government is ready to shoulder more of the relief effort and some expressed concern that the American military was scaling back.

Banda Aceh is in the throes of a humanitarian invasion. American MH-53 and MH-60 helicopters rumble over the city toward the battered west coast with food and water. C-130 cargo planes touch down on the tiny airport’s tarmac. Hundreds of aid groups work alongside radical Muslim and evangelical Christian relief organisations.

The city itself has welcomed foreigners and is showing signs of life. Traffic jams are commonplace and streets are being cleaned. Many relief officials are surprised about people’s resilience. Some have returned home for valuables and, farther inland, have begun rebuilding. Fishermen say they want to return to sea.